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French Ex-President Investigated in Corruption Probe

  • Lisa Bryant

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his residence in Paris, July 2, 2014.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves his residence in Paris, July 2, 2014.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy is under formal investigation in a tangled corruption inquiry that risks derailing his widely anticipated political comeback.

Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy returned home Wednesday with the news he was under formal investigation, after spending an unprecedented 15 hours in police custody outside Paris.

Magistrates are looking into whether Sarkozy used his influence to interfere with a probe into alleged irregularities involving his 2007 election campaign. His lawyer and a high ranking judge are also under investigation.

Interviewed on France's BFM television, Prime Minister Manuel Valls described the situation as serious. He called for judicial independence and said nobody was above the law, but also that the presumption of innocence should be upheld.

The probe is the latest in a series of corruption scandals dogging Sarkozy. This latest inquiry is linked to an investigation into whether he received illegal funding from former Libyan leader Moammar Gahdafi for his successful 2007 presidential campaign. Magistrates are examining whether he tried to obtain inside information into the probe.

Sarkozy is not the first French president to face corruption allegations. His predecessor, former conservative leader Jacques Chirac, was handed a suspended sentence in 2011, after being convicted of embezzlement and misusing public funds when he was Paris mayor.

Sarkozy was also under formal investigation last year, but magistrates dropped that probe.

The latest inquiry comes at a particularly delicate time. Sarkozy has been widely expected to be eyeing a political comeback, after losing his 2012 reelection bid to Socialist, now president, Francois Hollande. Today, says analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, the conservative leader is politically wounded.

"It will be very difficult for him to make a true comeback into the political arena. And it is clear that what is happening to Mr. Sarkozy makes Mr. Hollande happy, but also Mr. Juppe [conservative rival and former prime minister Alain Juppe] and other people of the right very happy ... because it is clear that many people in France do not want the comeback of Mr. Sarkozy," he said.

Sarkozy has vehemently denied all allegations of misconduct, suggesting they are politically motivated.

Wednesday, supporters like Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi from Sarkozy's conservative UMP party rallied behind him.

Speaking on French radio, Estrosi questioned the impartiality of at least one of the judges probing the allegations, and accused the Socialist government of sowing hatred in the country.

The probe is likely to further deepen public disenchantment in their elected officials. President Hollande is deeply unpopular, French are worried about joblessness and the sluggish economy and the far-right National Front Party surged in May elections for the European Parliament.